Top 12 school startup lessons, part 2

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Tina Long, Dennis Tiede, and Ben Lindquist

Editor's note: This is the second article in a two-part series on school startup lessons. Read part one here.

As communities in every part of the nation are being reshaped by such forces as urbanization, gentrification, and immigration, the creation of new public schools is vital. When done right, the startup of new schools fosters innovation, engages parents, empowers educators, unlocks community resources, and creates new options for learners and families with differing needs and preferences.

Between the three of us, we have started ten new public charter schools in three regions of the country, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, and the Mid-South. Building on part one in this two-part series, here are six more lessons that we believe are key to engineering a successful school start: 

1. Available cash flow and financial strength matter. One of the biggest impediments to quality school startups today is a lack of flexible funding. If everything falls into place, it is possible to pull off a strong school opening on limited resources. But considering the high cost of failure or consequences of subpar school performance for students, families, and the community, it simply isn’t worth the risk. As access to free cash flow for charter school startups has been increasingly hamstrung by an army of technocrats—state and federal grant-makers without entrepreneurial experience—charter schools often face unrealistic requirements around where, how, and when they can deploy grant funding. Flexible capital is essential. The first unrestricted dollars in the door are the most precious to the prospects for a successful startup because they can be applied as unforeseen priorities or unique opportunities arise.

2. The more innovative the model, the more expensive and risky the startup. Starting a school that implements a proven research-based model is no layup. Even when there is a solid base of proven practices, a leader with deep programmatic expertise, and a wealth of resources to draw upon, a startup can quickly unravel. Now imagine the challenges associated with starting a school on an experimental model. Under such conditions, there are no documented best practices to rely upon, and frequently, instructional resources must be created from scratch. In the face of the unknown, it can be difficult for even the most confident of leaders to project the assurance that teachers, parents, and students need to make a leap of faith and follow that leader up an unknown learning curve. Every time that an unproven model must be revised, there is a new outlay of resources to devise a new practice or program. Iterations are costly and time consuming—and, as the word travels out, corrosive to parent, teacher, board, and donor confidence.

3. The most underestimated resource is time. Starting a new public school is a complex, sophisticated undertaking. It is difficult to build a viable curricular design that is aligned with state learning standards, integrated vertically and horizontally across grades and subjects, and measurable through formative and summative assessments. It is even more difficult to recruit and retain a team of teachers and administrators with the training and know-how to successfully translate that curricular design into effective learning for every student. Yet too many charter schools do not take the necessary planning time to get their academic, human capital, operational, and fiscal house in order before opening. The average startup planning timeline should be at least two years.

4. Waiting a year is always an option. You only get the chance to start a school once. Frequently, a startup team will get to the point where they want to charge ahead and open a school no matter how many obstacles stand in the way. If the startup isn’t lining up right, it is always better to postpone a year. Strong founding boards and knowledgeable authorizers can be extremely helpful thought-partners in gauging how the startup is progressing and helping the leadership team decide to wait another year. Grant-makers should not penalize startup schools for exercising the prudence to postpone opening. 

5. The most undervalued founder attribute is grit. Many gate-keepers in the charter school space today—be they grant-makers, authorizers, regulators, or advocates—have very idealistic or even romantic notions about what public education should look like and who public school founders should be. These people frequently lack firsthand understanding of the raw grit—tenacity, discipline, drive, resourcefulness, and stamina—required to start a school that serves a high-need population and persevere until that school achieves excellence. Yet these same gatekeepers control access to precious resources and regulatory approvals. The charter school movement could benefit from more people with a laborer’s mindset, people who expect to get up early, work a long day, and realize the American Dream through sheer force of will.

6. The more at-risk the population, the more difficult the startup. Nationally, approximately 60 percent of students served by charter schools qualify are economically disadvantaged. It is challenging to systematically open strong schools that serve low-income populations. In such communities, parents are typically spread thin trying to make ends meet. Student turnover, tardiness, and absenteeism are more likely. Startup schools must readily adapt to a wide range of individual needs—from transportation and clothing to sleeping patterns and daily routines. The less stable the conditions are in a community, the harder it is to build a solid foundation on which to operate an exemplary new school. Startup school leaders must have a firm understanding of how to educate students from poverty and equip teachers to serve students growing up in such conditions.

In order to reimagine public education for the changing realities of the twenty-first century, we must attract a new generation of educators to our public school systems. These entrepreneurial educators will be driven by opportunity, challenge, social impact, upward mobility, and, yes, the earnings potential that starting new schools can offer them. At the same time, we as a nation must be willing to tolerate the experimentation, risks, and setbacks that will inevitably come with a large-scale, ongoing effort to create new schools. Not every venture will be successful, but we can only generate genuine breakthroughs in teaching and learning if we are willing to give entrepreneurial educators opportunities to pursue their hopes and dreams and make real change.  

Tina Long is superintendent of three schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. Dennis Tiede is chief operating officer of Exalt Education, a non-profit network of public charter schools. And Ben Lindquist is president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. 

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.